These two programs haven’t faced each other since 1999, and a lot’s changed since then. UNM does not have the prestige it once did, while Arizona continues to try and schedule programs around the area on a regular basis.
So what do the Lobos bring into not just this matchup, but next year’s return trip to Albuquerque? We turned to Jeremy Mauss of Mountain West Connection to answer a few questions before Tuesday night’s game tips off.
1. It seems like New Mexico has taken a major step backwards in recent years. What's the general feeling in regards to Craig Neal's job security?
Mauss: Craig Neal's job could be in jeopardy if there is another poor season, and it helped that he rebounded from a sub .500 year in his second season to getting just above that threshold last year yet it was by only two games.
In saying that, the Lobos should contend every year for the conference title and they did that in his first year he took over for Steve Alford where they finished second and made the NCAA Tournament with 27 wins. The past two years combined he is just 32-21, but this year the team seems to be a bit better as they have arguably the best player in the league in Elijah Brown. I think if they have another losing season, or one where they don't finish in the top four of the league, then he very likely will be on his way out.
2. Arizona goes to WisePies Arena next year. Does anyone actually call it that?
Mauss: In short, no. Unless it is something official from a media guide, pregame notes, or a TV broadcast, no one else really calls it that. Even if the outlets say WisePies Arena it is typically followed by some iteration of saying it is also known as "The Pit." There is no value to that restaurant -- I think it is a restaurant -- and New Mexico picked up some extra cash in a naming rights deal no one cares about.
3. Outside of Tim Williams and Elijah Brown, who do you think is the one Lobo that could have a big game on Tuesday and why?
Mauss: It will be tough against this Arizona team to have a third player, or have a better game than those two, stand out in this game. Odds are it would be forward Sam Logwood but he is a hit or miss player this year. He has four games where he has scored in double digits and five other games where he has logged over 26 minutes, but on the other side, he has a scoreless game and three other games where he played fewer than 20 minutes. He has talent to rebound well, shoots the ball well at 53 percent, and plays good defense, but he is not that consistent and so he could have a game where he scores 15, pulls down eight rebounds, and a pair of steals; or play 15 minutes and go 2-of-8 from the field.
I’ll cheat and say another guy who could make an impact and that is Lobos sophomore Dane Kuiper. He has moved into the starting lineup after scoring 29 points combined in his last two games. He said he has been tentative in his play this year but once Kuiper realized that coach Neal trusted him on the court he has been a much better player.
4. What does New Mexico have to do to be able to get a win in this game?
Mauss: They need a huge game from Elijah Brown and he must do so with a good shooting percentage. He is only converting on 39 percent of his shots but he is still the team’s second leading scorer with 16 per game. He likes to shoot from beyond the arc, but he is not very good at doing that as he is a paltry 28 percent from that range, and on a per game basis is converting 1.8 of 6.5. So, if he can make about half of his attempts that will help out. The Lobos need to have a third player step up and get at least three players in double-digits for a shot to win.
The Lobos are a much different team away from The Pit, having lost both true road games and went 1-2 at the Wooden Legacy in Southern California, but they are undefeated at home. The road/home splits are a real thing and that is hard to ignore when trying to find reasons the Lobos could upset the Wildcats.
5. Where do you see the Lobos finishing in the Mountain West this year?
Mauss: The Mountain West is having another down year where it is a real possibility that only the tournament champion goes to the NCAA Tournament. The teams this year have been hit or miss and the Lobos could finish anywhere from winning the league title to finishing in fifth place behind San Diego State, Nevada, Colorado State, or Boise State. To narrow it down they probably will finish third and depending who gets automatic bids or not should be in the NIT.